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How coaches can act as agents for systemic change

Coaches work in nearly every area of human experience, but this intervention type is primarily limited to individual or organizational change. Throughout the 2021 Future of Coaching Convening, Wisdom Weavers explored new ways to expand coaching to a systemic level.


Systemic change on a broader societal level is difficult but important to accomplish


Coaching strategies for individuals and organizations can be applied to systems


By taking the initiative to address systemic issues, coaching can transform society

Wisdom Weavers

Coaching offers skills to rethink social systems 

Speaking at the Future of Coaching Convening on emerging priorities in coaching research, Wisdom Weaver Dr. Jonathan Passmore suggests that coaches can apply their skillset to address systemic change in social and environmental realms. He proposes coaching research take a wider lens to understand how systems impact individual well-being and performance:

“I think if we are concerned with issues around equality and considering major questions, not only do we need to look at the micro issues, we also need to look at those macro issues.”

Dr. Jonathan Passmore

How can coaches tackle these “meta-issues”? For Wisdom Weaver Dr. Michael Cavanaugh, “coaching is about individual change. There are other models of change that work at the interpersonal level and at the systemic level…Do the competencies about working with individuals for change also hold when we talk about systemic coaching?”

Cavanaugh invites coaches to shift from a singular focus on a person’s context to consider the greater systemic factors impacting a person’s life.

Systemic coaching enhances equity and diversity

When it comes to addressing systems-level issues such as inequality, Michael proposes that coaches take a wider lens:

“What I’m also suggesting is that we as coaches need to hold a much more systemic aim and intention. Because otherwise, all we’re doing is we’re helping people deal with the systems that they’re in and not changing the systems that they’re in.”

Dr. Michael Cavanagh

Wisdom Weaver Margaret Moore elaborates on this theme, suggesting coaches partner with other helping professions to design combined interventions to address inequality. She says, “we talked about coaching the environment [and] coaching a culture. I don’t think coaching is going to get the job done if we’re not also partnering with the folks that are focused on the organizational development and the external forces. There’s a nice review in a psychiatry journal about resilience… and their conclusion was that what drives resilience is not being rugged and tough and vigorous, it’s more to do with external factors that support you…If you’re coming from a disadvantaged place, doing things that influence the external environment are probably just as important as coaching.”

Wisdom Weaver Morel Fourman takes a global approach:

 “Listen systematically to the system of human thinking and human interaction and then we might catch a glimpse of touching issues like diversity, justice, social inclusion, we might catch a glimpse of changing the course of history through coaching.”

Morel Fourman

In shifting the scope of coaching to impact organizations, communities, and the world, the future of coaching research must also adapt. Wisdom Weaver Dr. Jonathan Passmore suggests amplifying coaching research in non-Western settings, “So how do we begin to think about amplifying African and Asian models of coaching, how do we begin to think about researching those with samples that are different to those that we’ve used before?”

Coaches can bring awareness to systemic factors by:

  • Amplifying research in non-western contexts to address inequity
  • Helping clients consider how systemic factors may impact their own lives

Strategic coaching supports a sustainable future

Morel envisions coaches personally impacting systemic problems by strategically choosing their clients. He cites the Climate Coaching Alliance where coaches from diverse backgrounds are committed to teaching their clients about climate change and enhancing sustainability.

Similarly, Jonathan advocates that coaches integrate climate awareness into their research and practice. He asks, “When they think about the work that we as researchers were doing during the 2020s, they might be asking what were coaches doing when the planet was burning? And maybe the answer then is that we have been focused on, well, actually coaches, which is simply helping their clients to make the fire glow hotter. We’re focusing on amplifying organizational end events or individual performance. Those might be important issues, but there are meta issues beyond those.” 

For the International Coaching Federation Foundation, Morel and his colleagues are putting coaching for social impact into action through the Ignite program to support organizations and community groups to advance the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. He explains, “one of the distinctions that we’ve really worked within the Foundation is finding the insertion points where a small number of conversations and interactions can change the course of history. So, what one coach nibbling at a problem can’t do… coaches acting together could touch the insertion points. The global climate system, for example, is a small group of people in each of 190 odd countries who will be implementing plans to change the course of their climate footprint. Coaches working together can change the course of history, but we need to become astute about understanding insertion points.” 

Coaching and the United Nations Global Goals

Coaching on a global level to amplify marginalized voices and remove structural barriers that prevent economic development and equity supports the United Nations initiative for a sustainable future. Within the Global Goals framework, systemic coaching supports Goal 10 to reduce inequalities, including promoting gender equality under Goal 5. Coaches can also support Goals 11–13 for sustainable cities and communitiesresponsible consumption and production, and climate action by finding clever insertion points to make organizational, community, and regional impact. 

About this Convening

Forty-one Wisdom Weavers from across the globe gathered to share their thoughts and observations at the Shaping the Future of Coaching Convenings in September 2021. Learn more about the participants and topics covered in this Convening..

For the complete report and research recommendations, see Boyatzis, R.E., Hullinger, A., Ehasz, S.F., Harvey, J., Tassarotti, S., Gallotti, A., & Penafort, F. (2022). The grand challenge for research on the future of coaching. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science. DOI: 10.1177/00218863221079937

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